THE TELEGRAM (ST. JOHN’S)/THE CANADIAN PRESS-March 11th, 2008
Three years after Chicoutimi fire, crew members health worsening.
Three-and-a-half years after a fatal submarine fire, surviving crew members of HMCS Chicoutimi are falling ill with debilitating conditions – severe enough to force some of them out of the navy.
And researchers, who only recently analyzed the noxious substances in the smoke that crew members inhaled during the electrical fire, have yet to determine the impact on long-term health.
Many of the men have battled bureaucrats over pension entitlements. And some have documented compensation claims rejected.
“I know a lot of guys, their health is getting worse,” said Denis Lafleur, a former petty officer, who was among the most severely injured. “Nobody has been willing to come forward and admit what was burned on the boat.”
Almost half of the 56 men who battled to save their boat from a raging electrical fire in stormy seas off Ireland in October 2004 have been discharged from the service, will soon leave the military, or are on the medically disabled list.
“It’s hard to look in the mirror,” said one sailor. “I am a walking shell of what I once was. I was at the peak of my fitness before the fire. I was the healthiest I had been in my whole life and now I am half the person I was.”
Sailors still serving spoke on the condition their names not be used. Part of their reluctance stems from not only fear of retribution but from the stigma attached to them by fellow submariners who didn’t experience the fire.
At times, they say, their persistent health complaints have labelled them as “sick bay rangers.”
The handful of survivors who agreed to come forward brought with them health documentation and letters to back up their claims.
Many of the crew have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. Some have developed severe breathing difficulties, preventing them from climbing a flight of stairs.
Some sailors have had fainting spells, short-term memory loss. Others have developed chronic conditions, such as asthma.
There are neurological disorders. Crew members spoke of a colleague with epilepsy. Another had brain surgery.
All of those interviewed blame their illnesses on exposure to the noxious smoke and grey soot left over from the fire, which crippled the used British submarine during its maiden voyage to Canada.
Laboratory tests to recreate the thick, black smoke took place just last fall and the chemical analysis only recently landed on the desk of the navy’s lead toxicologist, Dr. Stephen Tserkrekos.
“It’s been a frustration for me that the process has taken as long as it has, but I’m sort of stuck with the situation the way that it is,” said Tserkrekos.
Because of the complexity of the tests, the military was forced to rely on the National Research Council, and had to “get into the queue” with other government departments.
Tserkrekos says it could take until the fall to estimate what impact the cocktail of chemicals had on the sailors. Of particular concern to the crew is Peridite, an epoxy and known carcinogen used to glue insulation to the deck and hull.
But Cmdr. Jeff Agnew says “as far as we determine” the substance, which submarine-maker BAE Systems Inc. warned requires special handling if burned, was not part of the fire.
Since the tragedy, which claimed the life of 32-year-old Lieut. Chris Saunders, the Canadian military and the public’s attention has been firmly fixed on the deaths in Afghanistan.
“For all of us guys who were injured on Chicoutimi in the line of duty, it seems like we’ve been forgotten,” said a second sailor, who also asked for anonymity.
A veteran’s advocate agreed.
“There’s so much competition for money and resources within the federal government, (that) trying to understand how a myriad of different chemicals interact with the human body on the battlefield – or in a submarine – is low on the totem pole in terms of priorities,” said Sean Bruyea, who spent 14 years as an air force intelligence officer.
By failing to track the men as a group, documenting their health concerns outside individual medical records, the navy is setting up Chicoutimi survivors for the same bureaucratic nightmare experienced by soldiers exposed to Agent Orange testing in the 1960s, Bruyea said.
Many of the men spent five days living in soot as the powerless warship was towed to safety.
“You take a bite of a sandwich and the bread was black. There were flakes of it floating in your drink,” said a third crewman.
It permeated everything, including equipment, clothes and dishes that had been sealed away in cupboards.
“We joked about who was going to play us in the movie. We joked about how we were killing ourselves by eating.”
On their return to Halifax, the crew was told the soot had been analyzed and it presented no long-term threat to their health.
But Tserkrekos says that study was meant to assess whether the boat was safe for the temporary crew that eventually brought it to Halifax – men who faced limited exposure. It did not take into consideration the health risks someone would face living in ashes over a five-day period, a subtle but important distinction.
“I still think to this day that whatever was in the soot (got) into my blood,” said one sailor.